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Black Entertainers Encourage Younger Artists To Speak Out For Causes


African-American celebrities are campaigning, such as the rapper Killer Mike, who's a Bernie Sanders supporter. "Scandal" star Kerry Washington has declared for Hillary Clinton. Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR's Code Switch teams reports that black celebrities have been publicly political for decades, including the man who sang this.


HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) Day o...

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: In 1950s, Harry Belafonte was an actor whose handsome face and husky tenor wowed audiences with songs from his Caribbean heritage, like this Jamaican work chanty that made him famous.


BELAFONTE: (Singing) Daylight come and me want to go home.

BATES: But Belafonte had another passion - civil rights. In the '50s and '60s, he worked tirelessly to support Martin Luther King and voting rights. The singer not only wrote checks, he marched with protesters. A half-century later, Belafonte, still an activist, is endorsing Bernie Sanders. He's critical of what he sees as a lack of involvement by today's black artists.


BELAFONTE: We have more black celebrities, more black visibility in the sports, in the arts and many social stations. And we have failed miserably in using that power and using that celebrity to keep alive the integrity of our struggle.

BATES: Black entertainers have been involved in social justice causes for decades, sometimes at great personal cost.


PAUL ROBESON: (Singing) When Israel was in Egypt's land, let my people go.

BATES: In the '30s and '40s, singer-actor-humanitarian Paul Robeson performed to fund leftist causes. His open support of the Soviet Union brought him before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he was blacklisted.

EMILIE RAYMOND: Those proceedings basically ruined Robeson's reputation.

BATES: Historian Emilie Raymond is the author of "Stars For Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities And The Civil Rights Movement." Raymond says Robeson's interrogation changed his life.

RAYMOND: He couldn't get any work as an artist in the United States. And then on top of that, he tried to work overseas, and the State Department basically canceled his passport. So he couldn't leave to make money elsewhere.

BATES: Raymond says Robeson cautioned younger black entertainers.

RAYMOND: He warned them, you know, don't appear too radical because then you'll be in the same kind of position I am.

BATES: Nevertheless, several entertainers got involved. Sidney Poitier wrote checks. Sammy Davis gave concerts. Actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis did benefit shows. Nightclub singer Eartha Kitt criticized the Vietnam War at the White House. That, she said, had immediate consequences.


EARTHA KITT: Within two hours, I was out of work in America.

BATES: After the Johnson administration labeled her an undesirable, Kitt worked abroad for a decade. In more recent wars, stars like Samuel L. Jackson would continue working even while objecting to the war in Iraq. Today, Beyonce and her husband Jay-Z are big Obama supporters. But many of today's black entertainers seem to focus more on causes than candidates. Janelle Monae, John Legend and rapper Common have all penned songs in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. And Kendrick Lamar stunned at last month's Grammys with a performance that highlighted the mass incarceration of black men.


KENDRICK LAMAR: (Singing) We're going to be all right. Hello, we're going to be all right.

BATES: It remains to be seen whether any of these celebrities will face a backlash for speaking out. But years after her exile and return, the late Eartha Kitt told an interviewer she had no regrets.


KITT: We live in a free, democratic world. And unless we are exercising those freedoms, you never know if you have them or not. So speak out. This is what this country's all about. Speak out.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.